More Humira sales gains help AbbVie meet forecasts

AbbVie's ($ABBV) first full year as an independent pharma company is on the books, and the fast-growing drug that has buoyed it from the start continues to churn out sales growth. Once again, Humira revenues made double-digit gains, driving a fourth-quarter profit that matched analysts' expectations.

AbbVie, spun off from Abbott Laboratories ($ABT) at the beginning of last year, on Friday reported earnings excluding one-time items of 82 cents per share. Sales of Humira, the world's best-selling drug with close to $10.7 billion in 2013 revenue, powered those profits, rising more than 13% to top $3 billion. That gain follows the drug's quarterly revenue increases of 16%, 13% and 19% in Q1, Q2 and Q3, respectively.

"We achieved all of the objectives we set forth for 2013, exceeded our original earnings guidance, and established a solid foundation for the future," CEO Richard Gonzalez said in a statement. "We intend to build on this momentum in 2014 as we invest in our key products, advance our pipeline, and prepare for significant product launches that will drive growth in 2015 and beyond."

While Humira's growth won't last forever--the rheumatoid arthritis treatment will lose patent protection in 2016--it will take complex, costly-to-develop biosimilars to compete for the drug's revenues rather than the cheap generics that have brought down many of Big Pharma's biggest stars.

But that's not to say the North Chicago, IL-based company doesn't have new prospects waiting in the wings. On the contrary, AbbVie is racing Gilead Sciences ($GILD) to get an interferon-free hepatitis C cocktail to market, and it expects to launch its combo treatment this year. Meanwhile, Gilead is developing a combo of its own around the hep C-treating Sovaldi, which won an FDA nod last year. Analysts have projected AbbVie's three-drug regimen to generate about $3 billion in peak sales, though a price war with Gilead could stir things up once the two go head-to-head.

"Two story lines dominate--the strength of Humira revenues in the here and now, and pipeline developments to fill potential shortfalls going forward," Barclays analyst Tony Butler wrote in a note seen by Bloomberg. 2014 should also see major results for experimental hep C and cancer medicines, he said.

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